Tag Archives: Flexible

Lego employees.

Part-time workers with flexible schedules work more unpaid overtime — especially mothers

Mothers working part-time take up more unpaid work when given control over their own schedule, a new study reports. The authors say that the findings should draw our attention to how part-time and flexible work schedules are wrongly perceived today.

Lego employees.

One of these workers is not like the others. And the others don’t like it.
Image via Pixabay.

New research from the University of Kent and the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam found that both men and women who can set their own hours end up doing more unpaid overtime. Mothers working part-time put in the most unpaid overtime in this scenario, they add.

“Increasing numbers of companies and governments are introducing flexible working, that is giving workers control over when and where they work, as a less costly option to help working families manage work and family demands compared to, for example, paid leave,” the paper explains.

The team drew on the Understanding Society surveys carried out between 2010-2015 to analyze how three patterns of flexible working impact an employee’s workload. The working schedules the team looked at are flexitime, teleworking, and schedule control. On average, they say, UK men work 2.2 unpaid overtime hours, while UK women put in roughly 1.9 unpaid hours per week, respectively.

Under flexitime-type programs, workers have a set number of weekly hours, but they have the option of picking a schedule that suits them best (from 8 am to 4 pm, or from 10 am to 6 pm, for example). Teleworking allows employees to work from home on a regular basis. Schedule control is arguably the most flexible of the flexible work programs — employees are allowed to work whenever they want, for as long or little as they need, to complete their tasks.

For the first two types of flexible work programs, the team couldn’t find an increase in unpaid overtime hours (above that 2.2 / 1.9 baseline level). However, they couldn’t detect a decrease in unpaid overtime hours either.

“Other studies have shown that certain types of flexible working, such as teleworking, are likely to increase work-family conflict rather than reduce it,” the authors explain.

Those in the schedule control group, however, did see a (significant) increase in overtime. On average, men put in around one more hour, and women without children roughly 40 more minutes, over the baseline value, per week. The team notes that full-time working mothers didn’t work any more unpaid time, but part-time working mothers put in around 20 minutes extra (so one hour in total) more each week. The team says that flexible workers’ tendency to work harder and longer — a phenomenon coined ‘the autonomy (control) paradox’ — has already been documented.

As to why, the researchers believe this comes down — in part — to how such working schedules are perceived. Part-time working mothers, they write, may feel the need to work longer hours to compensate for real or perceived stigma from co-workers — especially when working atypical hours. They support this hypothesis with previous research on the stigma felt by part-time workers; around 40% of which believe working part-time had a negative impact on their career progression.

They also write that part-time working mothers may simply have more opportunities to work overtime compared to full-time working mothers. In the context of the gift exchange theory, they could be working harder and for longer to recciprocate/reward employers for the favorable work program.

“More control over your work is supposed to make life easier for workers, particularly those with children. However, it is clear that for many, blurring the boundaries between work and home life expands work to be longer, even when it is unpaid,” says lead author Dr. Heejung Chung from Kent’s School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research.

“Employers need to be aware of this and ensure staff are not over-stretching themselves and undoing the benefits of flexible working.’

Dr. Chung also made a point of specifying that their study didn’t show flexible working arrangements lead to reduced work from employees, which flies in the face of popular perceptions. Employers need to be made more aware of this, she says, and tackle the stigma against those working flexible schedules.

The paper “Flexible Working and Unpaid Overtime in the UK: The Role of Gender, Parental and Occupational Status” has been published in the journal Social Indicators Research.

Bendy circuit.

Stretchy, bendy electronic circuits paves way to new wearable tech, bioimplants

Elastic circuits that can bend and stretch are here — and they mean business.

Bendy circuit.

LED circuits interconnected by MPC can undergo repeated bending, twisting, and stretching.
Image credits Tang et al., 2018, iScience.

Chinese researchers have developed a novel hybrid material — part elastic polymer, part liquid metal — that can bend, stretch, and still work as an electric circuit. The material can be cast in most two-dimensional shapes and, based on the polymer used, can be completely non-toxic.

Circuits, with a twist

“These are the first flexible electronics that are at once highly conductive and stretchable, fully biocompatible, and able to be fabricated conveniently across size scales with micro-feature precision,” says senior author Xingyu Jiang.

“We believe that they will have broad applications for both wearable electronics and implantable devices.”

The material the team developed is known as a metal-polymer conductor (MPC). As the name suggests, it’s a combination of two components. The metal bit of the mix carries electric charges — handling the ‘circuit’ part. However, the team didn’t use materials commonly seen in circuits, such as copper, silver, or gold, but settled on gallium and indium. These two metals form a thick fluid that’s a good electric conductor — meaning the circuits can ‘flow’ and still function while accommodating any stretching. The second component is a silicone-based polymer. This imparts mechanical resilience to the circuit, keeping the fluid ‘wires’ all neat and orderly.

Jiang’s team found that embedding globs of this gallium-indium mixture into the polymer substrate created a mechanically-strong material that can function as a circuit. Close-up, the MPC looks like a collection of metal islands in a sea of polymer. A liquid metal mantle runs underneath these islands to ensure conductivity is maintained at all times.

The team successfully trialed different MPC formulations in a wide range of applications — from sensors in wearable keyboard gloves to electrodes embedded in cells. There’s a huge range of applications these MPCs can be used for, they note, limited only by their particular polymer substrate.

“We cast super-elastic polymers to make MPCs for stretchable circuits. We use biocompatible and biodegradable polymers when we want MPCs for implantable devices,” says first author Lixue Tang.

“In the future, we could even build soft robots by combining electroactive polymers.”

The team is also confident that the MPC manufacturing method they developed — it involves screen printing and microfluidic patterning — can be used to produce any two-dimensional geometry. It can also handle different thicknesses and electric properties — which are a function of metal concentration in the circuits. This versatility could allow researchers to rapidly develop flexible circuits for a wide range of uses, the team notes, from wearable tech to bioimplants.

“We wanted to develop biocompatible materials that could be used to build wearable or implantable devices for diagnosing and treating disease without compromising quality of life, and we believe that this is a first step toward changing the way that cardiovascular diseases and other afflictions are managed,” says Jiang.

The paper “Printable Metal-Polymer Conductors for Highly Stretchable Bio-Devices” has been published in the journal iScience.

NASA’s morphing wing will make airplanes smoother, more efficient

A new shape-changing wing designed by MIT and NASA engineers could revolutionize the way we design flying vehicles. By twisting and morphing in flight, the “morphing wing” eliminates the need for flaps, ailerons, and winglets, making our planes more efficient and adaptable in the process.

Image credits NASA.

Birds’ wings have long been the envy of the aeronautical industry. While human-built planes may reach higher and fly faster than anything nature produced, they rely on clunky mechanisms and inflexible wings to stay aloft and maneuver. This impacts their energy (and thus, fuel) efficiency, limits the range of motions available, and the speed of maneouver. Birds, on the other hand, can affect subtle or more dramatic changes to their wings in flight, allowing them huge versatility and mobility compared to fixed wings.

So, wing shape has a huge hand to play in determining the flying capabilities of crafts, and rigid designs aren’t always the most efficient. NASA and MIT engineers have teamed together to bring some of the flexibility birds’ wings exhibit to airplanes.

“The ability to morph, or change shape, is desirable for a number of reasons in nature or in engineering, such as responding to varying external conditions, improving interaction with other bodies, or maneuvering in various media such as water or air,” the team explains.

They ditched the conventional system and started from scratch, assembling the wing using “a system of tiny, lightweight subunits” creating a mobile frame. These are covered with overlapping parts resembling feathers, which create the wing’s surface. The whole frame is built using only eight black, slightly squishy, carbon fiber elements — compared to the millions of plastic, composite, and metal parts that make a regular wing — covered with the shiny orange surface. Here’s an experimental, 5-feet (1.5 meter) model NASA put together:

Image credits NASA / MADCAT.

Image credits NASA / MADCAT.

Each of these eight components has a different stiffness, and the specific way they are interconnected makes the wings tunably flexible. Two small engines are all that’s required to twist the wing, changing the way it cuts through the air.

“One of the things that we’ve been able to show is that this building block approach can actually achieve better strength and stiffness, at very low weights, than any other material that we build with,” says NASA’S Kenny Cheung, one of the leaders of the project.

When the team placed a mock-up with the new wings in the wind tunnel at NASA’s Langley Research Center, Virginia, the dummy plane showed some spectacular aerodynamics.

“We maxed out the wind tunnel’s capacity,” says Cheung.

Airplane wings rely on ailerons to change directions and flaps for boosting lift at take-off and reduce landing distance. But when extended or manipulated, these surfaces create gaps in the wing — disturbing airflow, reducing performance, and generating noise.

“They require complex hydraulic and other actuators that add weight, complexity, and things that can go wrong,” adds Mark Sensmeier, an aerospace engineer at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

The full paper “Digital Morphing Wing: Active Wing Shaping Concept Using Composite Lattice-Based Cellular Structures” has been published in the journal SoftRobotics.